When we started TrailFork we had a few goals in mind. First, Cristyn and I were tired of working for other people. We wanted to be our own bosses, set the course of the company, and chart our own paths. Second, we wanted to found a company that embodied the change we believed was socially and environmentally necessary. Cristyn’s background (besides being a fantastic designer) is in animal rights activism, and my previous career was in teaching history—which is to say we were both motivated in our careers by furthering the greater good. Cristyn, Kira, and I decided that we wanted a company that would mirror our own outdoor ethics, and that being “women-owned” was important to us. We’d all run into workplace sexism and/or harassment at some point, and we believed that putting women in positions of authority was the best solution to toxic workplace culture.
The research bears out more than just the cultural necessity of having women in leadership positions, but also the clear economic benefit. And it also bears out the difficulty of achieving gender parity even though we might all agree that it would be a good thing. Our original founding group agreed on the necessity of fighting this particular fight from the get-go.
We faced our first challenge to this vision almost right out of the gate. In the fall of 2017, Scot Frank, a friend of mine from high school contacted me about TrailFork. Scot had an impressive track record of founding and working on companies with a mission, and he had been thinking about a backpacking food company himself for some time. Would we be willing to join forces?
My first inclination was to say, hell yes! In the doldrums of November and December, Scot’s background and enthusiasm were just what we seemed to need. But there was the obvious issue of his being, well, a dude. Cristyn, Kira, and I had emphasized our being women-owned, and Scot’s chromosomes seemed a bit problematic in furthering that end.
Figuring out what it would mean to take on a male co-founder was not something that we took lightly. From the outside it may seem like a fairly black-and-white decision: if your founding team is all-female, you’re women-founded. If your founding team is not all female, you’re not women-founded. I had a couple of friends who responded to our shifting group of co-founders with, “Uh, Lil, what the f***?” And the criticism stung, because I was asking myself the same question. By taking on a male co-founder, was I somehow acknowledging that we women couldn’t do it on our own?
The fact is, we couldn't do it on our own—but not, of course, because we were all women. It was because we, with our respective day jobs, didn't have the time or professional backgrounds to get TrailFork off the ground without support from some other humans. We needed to be able to share the burden with someone else who was psyched about what we were doing.
In the end we decided to prioritize the success of TrailFork over a symbolic claim of “women-owned.” Bringing Scot on board had nothing to do with the fact that he’s a guy—it instead had everything to do with the fact that we were overburdened and needed someone with his skill set. We reasoned that in order for TrailFork to effect change, we’d need to see success in the marketplace, and that meant bringing on people who had more experience than we did and more access to resources. But we also foresaw the inevitable challenge of hewing closely to our values as we attempted to grow, and we needed to ensure that anyone who joined our team be an ally in our fight for women in leadership positions. We wanted to ensure that this wasn’t the first move in what could become a pattern of sacrificing our core identity and values for the sake of growth.
We’ve tried to guard against this kind of compromise by setting out a mission early on. Last fall I think we had less than $1500 in revenue, but we nevertheless hammered out a mission statement. Better to get that stuff nailed down before things got crazy. We wanted to make sure that anyone else who came on board was also on board with what we value, and that as we made decisions about business down the road, we were doing so in line with the vision we set out with in the beginning.
So, the third tenet of our mission deals with the issue of gender.
Initially, this part of our mission statement read:
Women in Leadership.
TrailFork considers an overall societal shift toward gender parity in leadership to be central to the success of business and society. In committing to being at the forefront of that shift, and as a women-founded company, we commit to remaining majority women-owned. As we grow, we also pledge to retain women in at least 50% of all C-Suite positions.
There was a certain amount of conversation around this. Would “Women in Leadership” feel exclusive? Would it limit our customer base? Would we get pigeonholed as a company whose products were primarily for women? Would we limit our impact by alienating half of our potential audience? We know that 91% of venture capitalists are men, and that 98% of founders who receive VC funding are men, and generally that the startup world is not exactly welcoming for women. (The first guideline that femalefounders.com lists for VC’s dealing with female founders is “Sexual Advances—don’t hit on them.” The fact that someone needs to say this is shocking to me.) How could we combat this problem while also making sure that our company attracted the talent and money it needed, regardless of gender identity? (And this of course didn’t just go for cis-gendered men; what about trans and non-binary folks?)
In my last position I had been with an organization whose mission statement in fact did emphasize women in leadership, and where a majority of my supervisors were women, and I had nonetheless faced aggressive harassment driven by my gender and age. So stating in words that we were all pro-female didn’t necessarily mean that we’d have to walk the walk. We needed to make sure that our mission was substantive, not just symbolic.
So after some thought, we revised this part of our mission. It now reads:
Equity in Gender Representation: As a woman-founded company, gender inclusivity is paramount to our management philosophy. We strive to be a company where all gender identities are welcomed, celebrated, and supported in staff and management positions.
This feels more inclusive to me, and more action-oriented. Just because a company has women in leadership positions doesn’t mean that the actions of that company support women and non-binary people. Women, I've learned, have their unconscious biases, too. But stating that we will strive to welcome, celebrate, and support folks of all gender identities puts the onus on us to live up to our own words.
At the end of July we have a production and operations team meeting. We’ll set aside time at that meeting to talk about this part of our mission, and brainstorm concrete ways in which TrailFork can live up to it. I hope you’ll check back soon to take a look at what we come up with.